By Anonymous author

14 August 2019 - 10:12

Italian word amore written on wall
'He always laughs about the time when I italicised the English word 'onion' instead of saying cipolla, the Italian word for onion.' Photo ©

Abi Schreider used under licence and adapted from the original

Language barriers would stop 54 per cent of British people from having a holiday romance, according to a new poll. One British Council colleague tells us about her bilingual relationship. 

Was there a language barrier when you met your husband?

We were talking in English in the queue for a London nightclub and I realised he was probably Italian. I practised my opening line, and when he said he was Italian I said 'Oh, I knew it', in Italian.

We live together in London now. He had been in the UK for less than a year when we met, and so his English wasn't as good as it is now. My written Italian was good at the time, but I wasn't as good conversationally.

How long have you been learning languages?

I started learning Italian when I was 13, and I've never stopped. I did an Italian GCSE, A level, and degree, and it has been part of my job at times. 

I grew up in Woking, England. There's a large Italian community in Woking, so the state schools teach Italian. When I started university, a lot of people in my year were learning Italian as beginners, so I was lucky to get a head start. 

I learned French as well, though my French skills have become a bit rusty. 

I also learned Welsh as a second language at primary school, in Cardiff, Wales, where I lived until I was 11 years old. I don't remember a lot of the language now; I can probably say hello and count to ten in Welsh. 

Did learning Welsh as a child make a difference to your language learning later in life?

Yes, learning different words for different things became natural to me. 

Language learning also feels more normal in a bilingual country. The languages are on road signs, and you sing songs at primary school in both languages. When you're young, it's fun. Those languages become part of your identity, even if you don't speak both of them fluently. 

Have you and your partner had any linguistic mishaps?

The words 'Tuesday' and 'Thursday' sound the same when an Italian speaker says them in English. Italian doesn't have the ur sound in Thursday, or the th sound as distinct from the sound. 

We had a few scheduling errors because of that, and I got annoyed and told him he had to practise. I remember us walking to the Tube while he practised, saying 'Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday, Thursday, Thursday, Thursday'. 

He's really good at learning languages. He gets new vocabulary and uses it everywhere, all the time.

He always laughs about the time when I didn't know the Italian word for 'onion' – cipolla – so I italicised the English word instead. 

Are there differences in tone of voice that you had to get used to?

The way you express yourself in Italian and English can be quite different, and that was the source of a lot of arguments, especially at the beginning. 

You can be a lot more direct in Italian, and people don't take offence. If you issue a direct order to someone in English, they might react badly. 

My husband has found that 'do this' doesn't get much of a result in English, but 'could you do this, please' works a lot better.

In English, it has to sound like there's room to say no. 

I've also learned not to take offence, because I'm more used to differences in tone between our languages. 

What was it like meeting family and friends?

I think his mother was worried when he told her he had a British girlfriend, until he told her that I speak Italian. 

I struggled with big groups as well. It took me a while to have the confidence to join in, even though people were very nice and patient. 

I'd have to work very hard to follow what was going on, and then to think of what to say, and by the time I thought of what to say the moment had passed. 

It took a few years of hanging out in groups of Italians before I felt comfortable being part of the conversation. 

One result of the poll is that only 17 per cent of adults in the UK have had a holiday romance with someone who did not speak English as their first language.

It can be uncomfortable communicating in an unfamiliar language, and that might put people off.

You need to be willing to make a fool of yourself when you're learning another language, and be comfortable with making a few mistakes and taking a few risks. 

People will laugh at you while you're learning, but hopefully good-naturedly. 

What are the benefits of having a partner whose language is different from yours?

We have a one-year-old baby now, and we're raising him bilingually. It's interesting to see him starting to understand both languages.

I speak English to him, my husband speaks Italian to him, and as a family we speak Italian. That doesn't always work perfectly, because he doesn't speak back yet. 

He goes to an anglophone nursery and we live in London, so I'm not worried about him learning English.

It also gives you a different kind of access to a place and way of life. I've always loved Italian culture and food, and now I have the best excuse to visit Italy. 

What words have you taught each other in Italian and English?

​The English word 'obnoxious' is my husband's favourite at the moment. I taught it to him, and he uses it to describe anyone he dislikes. I keep correcting him, as the meaning is much more subtle.

He also likes 'Toad in the Hole', an English recipe that does not include toads. His Italian friends in London were very confused when they first saw it on a menu. Once I explained what it was – sausages in a savoury pudding with gravy – he was a convert. He also thinks the many different meanings of 'pudding' are interesting.

Mine is tigella, which is a culinary speciality from Modena, where he's from. It's a little round bread cooked on a hotplate which you eat with lardo – pork fat and herbs – and Parmigiano Reggiano (a type of hard cheese). The word tigella is controversial: many people would say you should call it a crescentina.

I also like spennacchiato, which means 'ruffled'. It usually applies to feathers, but we use it to describe our baby's hair. 

According to the poll, men (41 per cent) were more likely than women (29 per cent) to consider a holiday romance with someone whose first language was not English, and less likely than women to be put off by potential obstacles. 

I think societies often teach men to be more forward than women. I wonder if it's also to do with the way we learn to prioritise, and think about practicalities.

People might not anticipate meeting a partner who speaks another language, but that might change when they meet someone who they like. I hadn't planned to marry an Italian, but I met someone who I liked in a queue outside a club. We fell in love, and now we have a baby.

I know a couple who met in Thailand, one Italian and one Canadian. They have two children now, and live in Canada. I don't know how they would have thought about that beforehand, but they met by chance and it worked. 

Which languages do you use when you travel together?

It's interesting when we go to Spanish-speaking countries. We've never learned Spanish, but we can make ourselves understood because it's close to Italian.

If we don't know a word, I'll usually default to an Italian word. He'll default to an English word more often, because those are the most foreign languages to both of us. For example, if we can't recall the Spanish word billete for ticket, he might say the English 'ticket’ and I might say the Italian biglietto. 

A poll earlier this year found that 34 per cent of British people would think about learning a new language if it might result in love.

We were lucky because our language levels in Italian and English were about the same when we met. So, we'd talk in one language, and when one person got tired, we'd switch to the other language. 

Falling in love is a good reason to learn the other person's language. For it to work, you have to be patient with them, and give them time to express themselves while they're learning. 

Read more results from the holiday romance survey published by the British Council. 

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